Photos of India: Tinted by Tradition

“Tinted by Tradition” showcases Waswo X. Waswo’s coloured vintage photographs of posed studio portraiture that subvert ethnographic clichés in Rajasthan, and play with calendar art and popular iconography.

This idea of making black and white photographs and then hand-colouring them was catalyzed by three significant events.

Firstly, Waswo has already made a name for himself exhibiting his sepia photographs in the United States. And it would have been a tradition he would have continued after making Udaipur, Rajasthan home in 2005 if not for the insurmountable complications he had encountered with unfamiliar chemicals, water and heat in India. Reluctantly, he switched to digital photography and started making black and white digital prints.

Secondly, this American photographer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had seen and fallen in love with vintage Indian studio photography.

And the last is the vital catalyst: Rajesh Soni was the grandson of Prabhu Lai, the expert hand-colourist and photographer who had worked for Maharaja Bhopal Singh of Mewar. As Waswo’s interpreter, Soni saw his black and white digital prints and immediately exclaimed: “I can hand-colour these!”

Waswo loved the idea but initially did not like Soni’s choice of loud colours. The collaboration began in earnest (since 2006) when this man from Udaipur switched to lighter colours and developed a special style to colour the prints.

The final vintage feel reminded Waswo of the evocative softness of his former sepia photos while opening up their potential in mood and expression. At the same time, it succinctly blurred the lines between the traditional and the contemporary.

To shoot these photographs, his collaboration with the people of Udaipur does not end with just Soni. There are two other groups involved: the people who paint his backdrops and his models.

Under Waswo’s directions, Udaipur artists Zenule Khan, Anil Atnish and Chiman Dangi go about painting the studio sets, drawing inspiration from his previous landscape shots of India. But when it comes to the forest scenes, they rely purely on their vivid imagination.

The models are generally local people who come into contact with Waswo and his Indian artistic collaborators. And they are often hired to act as themselves in a mutually constructed enactment of life and fantasy: you get the little girl from the tiny village of Varda, the farmer Sumer Singh carefully bending over to inspect his crops, Waswo’s long time assistant, Ganpat Mali, posing in an enactment of his rural Rajasthan roots. The results seek to give status and dignity to the everyday people of Rajasthan.

Props are also used in realistic abundance: cycle-carts, clay pots, antique armchairs, Indian musical instruments, were culled from streets, farms and local shops in Udaipur. And sometimes, live animals are used in his staged photographs.

It is only when Waswo is blissfully happy with sets, props and staging that he starts clicking his digital camera in natural light. Then Soni painstakingly colours his perfect shots so creating images that hover subtly between the real and the imaginary together.

Catch the photographer’s magical glimpses of his beloved Udaipur at Indigo Blue Art, at 33 Neil Road, Singapore 088820 before the exhibition ends on 29 June 2013.

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